A lifetime ago

75 Years Later, Local Veterans Reflect on World War II

Three former soldiers tell us their stories from the war and share what their time in the service meant.

By Catherine Wendlandt August 14, 2020

Robert Wehnert, a top-gunner in World War II, sits in front of a B-17G Flying Fortress at the Lone Star Flight Museum.

Robert Wehnert, a top-gunner in World War II, sits in front of a B-17G Flying Fortress at the Lone Star Flight Museum. Wehnert, who signed up for the army when he was 17, has been volunteering at the museum since 2018. 

AFTER YEARS OF FIGHTING and millions of deaths around the globe, on September 2, 1945, World War II officially ended, and the U.S. soldiers serving abroad on that day (out of a total of 16 million who supported the war effort overall) knew they would soon begin coming home. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of that debilitating conflict.

There are now only about 300,000 veterans left in the United States who witnessed firsthand what that war meant for their day-to-day lives. Houstonia sought out three Houston vets to share with us about their experiences. Each one of them had their own unique experience during the war, and their own takeaway about what the time in the service meant.

For all three, there was life before World War II, and then there was life after. Nobody returned unchanged. Houston native Vincent Moreno, now 96, says that he and his buddies loved to play war when they were children, but he found they couldn’t talk about their experiences after facing the real thing. “You just were back, and that’s it,” he tells Houstonia.

“There wasn’t anything I wanted to remember,” League City resident Robert Wehnert says. For years he refused to speak of his time participating in air raids over Europe or anything concerning the war.

More than seven decades after its end, many who lived through those dark times—the ones often referred to as “the greatest generation”—have passed on. But the local veterans we spoke with remain engaged with their community. Houstonian transplant Bob Ray, who turns 97 in November, still works with the family AC repair business that he started after moving here in 1968. Moreno, who worked for the railroad for 44 years, got to throw out the first pitch at an Astros game last year and was honored this past spring at RodeoHouston.

And Wehnert? He spent his career in the printing business, not even telling his children about what he’d been through. But when he was 93, he decided he owed it to the soldiers who didn’t make it home from the war to share his own story—and their stories as well. Since 2018 he’s volunteered for the Lone Star Flight Museum, where he chats with visitors about his experiences.

“We had such a loss of men, and I felt I had to do something to keep their memories alive,” he says. “I felt compelled to do this.”

The Ghost Town

For Seaman Bob Ray, the scariest night of the war was V-J Day.

Usually on his ship, the USS Detroit, a light cruiser, everything was kept dark at night so the Japanese couldn’t spot them. “You couldn’t even smoke a cigarette above deck,” Ray says. But that evening they turned on all the lights in celebration.

Ray was born in Kusa, Oklahoma—now a ghost town—in 1923. In the mid-1930s, after struggling for years to get by in the Dust Bowl, his family moved to the West Coast. Ray was picking fruit in California when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Six months later he enlisted and found himself a sailor on the Detroit, a relative relic from 1918.

As the war raged in the Pacific Theater, Ray’s ship didn’t see much action, but the Detroit was on hand for the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. The crew’s part in those engagements was small, but in between those famed battles, the creaky old ship sailed right into Typhoon Connie. The storm whipped up the ocean so you couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of you, Ray recalls. Enormous waves rose up, slapping the ship around as if it were a toy. By the time the storm passed, six U.S. service members were dead, and the typhoon had ravaged the U.S.’s Pacific fleet, damaging 33 ships and 76 planes. “It was rough,” Ray says simply.

Once the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, Ray and his crew sailed to Tokyo Bay. They were moored only 200 yards away from the USS Missouri when Japan officially surrendered on September 2.

Afterward the Navy bussed Ray and other soldiers into downtown Tokyo. In March the U.S. had firebombed Japan’s capital, destroying 16 square miles, killing an estimated 100,000 people, and leaving one million more homeless. Peering out the window, Ray saw chimneys jutting like skeletal bones from the houses that had burned down around them. The city seemed empty; there was no one, Ray says. He was only 21, and as he stared out at the vast pile of rubble that had once been Tokyo, he felt sick.

“You had an empty feeling in your stomach, that: Did we kill everybody?” he says. “It was not a good feeling.”

Vincent Moreno throws out the first pitch opening an Astros game in 2019.

Vincent Moreno throws out the first pitch opening an Astros game in 2019.

The Texas Cowboy

Growing up in Houston, Vincent Moreno and his friends used to play Cowboys and Indians. They’d creep up on each other as if they were in the jungle, with homemade bows and arrows. “Everybody wanted to be the hero,” he says, like Western movie star Buck Jones.

Years later, when Moreno got to Army training in Pennsylvania, the Yankee soldiers called the Texas recruits “cowboys,” but the rifle instructors didn’t want anybody to be shooting like actors in Westerns—instead they needed to aim. “They said, None of this cowboy stuff, shooting from the hip.”

Moreno was drafted in March 1943, when he was just 19, and he’d never been farther from home than Galveston. After training, he was shipped to Calcutta to serve in the lesser known China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater, landing there in December 1943.

In India his work was unglamorous: he packed and unpacked ships. In August 1944 he saw a flyer requesting volunteers for a “dangerous, hazardous combat mission.” There was an increase in pay, but they wouldn’t get a higher rank, and there was “no promise that you would come back.” But it sounded a lot more interesting than spending the rest of the war in a shipyard, so Moreno signed up.

He was sent to Burma—now Myanmar—to join a Texas National Guard regiment nicknamed the Mars Men. Moreno became one of roughly 7,000 volunteers and 3,000 mules tasked with taking back the Burma Road, which could help the Allied supply lines to China. Over the course of three months, from January to March 1945, they marched 279 miles through jungles and over the Himalayan mountains to complete their mission. Moreno turned 21 in a foxhole.

After a night of fighting the Japanese—using only grenades, because the flash of their guns would have given away their location—Moreno was awarded a bronze star. But the experience took a toll. The fighting was brutal, and Moreno says they began to lose feeling with tragedy all around them. “You just don’t give a damn,” he says now.

Although he’s proud of his service, Moreno says the war changed him. By the time he came back to Houston, the boy who had grown up pretending to be a cowboy was gone.

“We used to play war. Then you really go to the real thing, and there’s a whole lot of differences,” he says, quietly. “I don’t know what it is, but you become somebody else.”

Flying into an Asphalt Highway

Robert Wehnert volunteered for the Army Air Corps in September 1942 because he wanted to be a pilot. He was a 17-year-old high school senior, so he had to get parental consent. For six months he attended cadet training, learning about navigation and meteorology, each day after his high school on Long Island, New York, got out.

The following March he skipped his final months of high school—there’d be no picture of him in the yearbook, and the school mailed him his diploma—and left for basic training. By December 1944 Wehnert was in Manduria, Italy—in the country’s “heel.”

His dream of being a pilot had been dashed when he flunked the depth-perception test, so he was now a B-24 gunner. Every mission he’d jam his body into the turret atop the heavy bomber plane and fire guns at the German Luftwaffe. The space was tight; he didn’t have room for his parachute. “You put it near your turret,” he says, “hoping it was going to be there when you needed it.”

Each air raid began the same way. At 7 p.m. everyone at camp would check a bulletin board to see who was scheduled to fly. If Wehnert was flying, he’d wake up at 3 a.m. the next morning. At 4 a.m. his bomb group would gather on benches—cement blocks with boards—and they’d find out their target.

There would be moans and groans at this point. Everyone knew the bad assignments, the ones you weren’t likely to return from. After the briefing the crews would suit up in warm clothing—it could be 40 degrees below zero in the air—and by 6 a.m. they were off.

His bomb group, consisting of 28 planes and 288 men, would fly up the Adriatic Sea carrying almost 6,000 pounds of bombs, joining four other bomb groups and their air cover, the famed Tuskegee Airmen.

To confuse German radar, the planes would throw down chaff—thin aluminum strands that looked like Christmas tree tinsel—and about an hour before they reached their target, the Germans would figure out where they were headed and begin shooting at them. The sky would be black from the smoke and explosion of shells, but they had to fly through it. “That was the scary part,” Wehnert says, “to look ahead and see what would sometimes look like an asphalt highway.”

From December 21, 1944, to April 26, 1945, Wehnert and his crew flew 25 missions. His crew was close, “like brothers,” he says. They slept in a tent and spent all their free time together. They were all about the same age, too, except their pilot—he was 22. As Wehnert recalls now, with a chuckle, “We used to call him Dad.”

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